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Shocking results from a survey sparked by Horse & Hound suggest that hundreds of grooms in the UK are being paid below minimum wage. And more than half don’t have an employment contract.

The average reported wage — £4.19 per hour — falls well below the national minimum £6.31 (due to go up to £6.50 on 1 October 2014). Meanwhile, 56% of grooms said they do not have a written contract.

“Grooms and employers alike need to be better educated on legal working conditions,” said Lucy Katan of the British Grooms Association (BGA) which ran the survey. “The results we have really imply that there are a lot of people breaking employment law.”

The survey, which was promoted by H&H’s story “It’s never been harder to find a good groom” (news, 26 September 2013), was run in January and February by the BGA.

The H&H article highlighted issues on both sides — from lazy grooms quitting via text, to employers paying below the minimum wage.

The aim of the survey was to supply a “realistic picture” of the industry.

In the original piece, employers described horror stories such as grooms leaving by climbing out of windows in the dead of night.

“The response to the article in H&H sparked the need for us to discover the facts,” said
Ms Katan. “We must improve to make it a more attractive career option, while giving stability to employers.”

Illegal practices?

Lucy Katan said the BGA was “surprised” by the results, especially by the average wage, £4.19, which is a third less than it should be.

“This is highly damaging to the reputation of the equestrian industry. It is time to see a major overhaul of what is acceptable,” she said.

However, 91% of employers claim to pay at or above the national minimum wage.

“The employers who responded may have been those already more aware of employee issues and rights,” she added.

In new rules, employers who do not pay their workers the national minimum wage are soon to face tougher penalties, with the maximum fine rising from £5,000 to £20,000.

“It’s a challenge for everyone,” said rider Jody Sole. “It’s frustrating when you struggle to get staff who want to put the work in. However, if you look in the right places it’s not hard to find out about employment law, so there are no excuses.”

Ms Katan added that the BGA was “most surprised” by the statistic that 55% of grooms who were working pupils received no training.

“Even 20% of employers stated that no training was planned,” she added. “This is part of their salary — I am surprised our industry is allowing these practices to continue.”

Nearly 1,100 grooms and 160 employers took part. Of the grooms who responded, almost 50% were employed as staff and 24% were freelance. They came from every sector of the horse industry — from polo yards to vet clinics, studs, colleges liveries and private yards.

Georgina Brooke-Holmes of Coventry University worked alongside the BGA and Sport England on the survey. She said the survey looked at “how yards are run, and how they should be run”.

“Previously, there were a lot anecdotes but few hard facts,” she said.

A high turnover

In the original article, H&H highlighted the issues of retaining a good groom. And the stats backed this up — a mere 18% of respondents had been in their current role for more than five years and 60% for less than two years.

Of those grooms who had already left the industry, 57% cited “poor working conditions” as why they left.

One groom, who wished to be unnamed, worked at 4 yards before quitting and becoming a carer. She said she was paid on average £3.50 an hour and never had a contract.

“I was not being paid properly and we were treated like rubbish,” she said. “It was all I ever wanted to do, but in the end I got disheartened by it — I felt underappreciated.”

However, it goes both ways.

“Some students come straight from college expecting a strong wage for the amount of experience they have,” said eventer Jay Halim. “It’s amazing how many people don’t even have a basic standard of mucking out.”

Staff-employee divide

A huge gulf between the views of grooms and employers has also been identified.

Some 56% of grooms stated that they do not receive payslips, which are a legal requirement, while 46% said they don’t get holiday or sick pay.

But freelance groom Liz Whiting told H&H awareness is growing.

“When I first started, there were no contracts and no idea about minimum wage — but that is improving,” she said. “However, people think it’s ‘normal’ not to have a contract and that needs highlighting. I think part of the problem is employers taking advantage, but I think many are also ignorant to what is proper practice.”

Ms Katan said the BGA must also investigate what is meant by “working conditions”.

“Are grooms simply work-shy? Or are there tangible employment practices taking place that are causing grooms to become demotivated?” she questioned.

“We have seen evidence of good practice and a great deal of goodwill towards improving practice on the part of employers.

“Hopefully, in the not too distant future, we can be sure that stories of people working for 86p per hour, 70hr per week are apocryphal rather than true.”

This news story was first published in Horse & Hound magazine (3 April, 2014)